Katherine Kearns: On "The Oven Bird"

These seemingly negligible birds, symbols of the lyric voice, have intuited the Oven Bird's lesson and are the signs by which one is meant to divine Frost's acceptance of the linguistic implications of the fall from innocence. The Oven Bird, who watching "That other fall we name the fall" come to cover the world with dust, "Knows in singing not to sing." Instead, "The question that he frames in all but words / Is what to make of a diminished thing." The fall, in necessitating both birth and death, imposes a continuum of identity that compromises naming. The process toward death, begun with birth, transmutes and gradually diminishes form, thus adding to the equation - words are things before they become words and things again when they do - an element of inevitable, perpetual senescence. The birds of "A Winter Eden" say "which buds are leaf and which are bloom," but the names are always premature or too late: gold goes to green, dawn to day, everything rises and falls and is transformed. Thus the Oven Bird says, "Midsummer is to spring as one to ten," because a season - this or any other - may only be codified analogously. "Fall" takes on a series of identities: petal fall, the fall season, the first and fortunate fall, each of which bears, at the moment of articulation, the burden of a whole complex of moral, aesthetic, and literary valuations. This bird is a "midsummer and a midwood bird" that sees things at the moment of capitulation to the imperatives of fall. Loud, he predicts the inevitable, and his "language" reflects the potential meaninglessness of a world in which one is forced to define a thing by what it departs from or approaches rather than what it "is." To anticipate and recognize in the full-blown flower only its inevitable decay is to miss the mark, but to ignore its ephemerality is an equal failure. The paradox of the Oven Bird's assertive voice completes the suggestion that only a new "language" can accommodate the diminishing of things, for he neither sings nor speaks: he "knows in singing not to sing" and he frames his question "in all but words." He neither sinks nor soars, and he lives in a solid, domed house that typifies his Yankee ingenuity, his forethought, his prudence. In a voice of virile moderation, loud but unhysterical, he sets out to articulate his surroundings.

But at the same time, and in a way that refuses to cancel out this message, Frost obliquely mocks his meager lyric birds and the compromised, oven-bird speakers throughout his poetry who are equally pinioned, held by their own voices from transcendence. He is ironically and ambivalently aware of the Palgravian definition of "lyric poetry." (Lentricchia sums it up: "No narrative allowed, no description of local reference, no didacticism, no personal, occasional, or religious material, no humor - the very antithesis of the 'poetical' - no dramatic textures of blank verse because the speaking voice is alien to song lyric," etc.) And Frost is very much dedicated to deconstructing this mode with his own lyricism: he writes to Amy Lowell: "The great thing is that you and some of the rest of us have landed with both feet on all the little chipping poetry of a while ago. We have busted 'em up as with cavalry. We have, we have, we have." Yet paradoxically, Frost holds on to lyric power by seeming to abnegate it: there is in this erotically declined game of loving (an abased and abasing) language an element of what can only be called sadomasochism. If poetry takes "a little rough handling once in a while," Frost is willing to "do it violence" in order to maintain his own poetic potency (Letters 182); yet he is both the abased - with his words - and the abaser - with his prosodically virile sound. Like ice shrieking across a red-hot griddle, his poetry does, indeed, ride on its own melting. One cannot, and Frost has ensured this absolutely with his unstable irony, make a validated choice between the fire and the ice, or between the language, so insistently mundane, and the potent oversound. Fire and ice are, after all, the inextricable complementarities of one apocalyptic vision: that endlessly regenerative cycle of desire and (self) hatred that necessarily brings the productive poet to scourge his own voice as he mocks both the poetic vocation and the state to which poetry - and if poetry then all language - has come. Frost anticipates modernism's lament and, it may be said, prefigures in his dualism its dubious palliative of self-referential irony. The lyric birds and the weary speakers tell us the genuine Frostian wisdom of achieving a commonsensical accommodation with the fallen world, while inciting at another, and ineffable, level a profound disquiet.

From Robert Frost and a Poetic of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Criticism Overview
Title Katherine Kearns: On "The Oven Bird" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Katherine Kearns Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 19 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite
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